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Introduction of Buddhism (The three marks of Existence)
Buddhism has been described as a very pragmatic religion. It does not indulge in metaphysical speculation about first causes; there is no theology, no worship of a deity or deification of the Buddha. Buddhism takes a very straightforward look at our human condition; nothing is based on wishful thinking, at all. Everything that the Buddha taught was based on his own observation of the way things are. Everything that he taught can be verified by our own observation of the way things are.
If we look at our life, very simply, in a straightforward way, we see that it is marked with frustration and pain. This is because we attempt to secure our relationship with the "world out there", by solidifying our experiences in some concrete way. For example, we might have dinner with someone we admire very much, everything goes just right, and when we get home later we begin to fantasize about all the things we can do with our new-found friend, places we can go etc. We are going through the process of trying to cement our relationship. Perhaps, the next time we see our friend, she/he has a headache and is curt with us; we feel snubbed, hurt, all our plans go out the window. The problem is that the "world out there" is constantly changing, everything is impermanent and it is impossible to make a permanent relationship with anything, at all.
If we examine the notion of impermanence closely and honestly, we see that it is all-pervading, everything is marked by impermanence. We might posit an eternal consciousness principle, or higher self, but if we examine our consciousness closely we see that it is made up of temporary mental processes and events. We see that our "higher self" is speculative at best and imaginary to begin with. We have invented the idea to secure ourselves, to cement our relationship, once again. Because of this we feel uneasy and anxious, even at the best of times. It is only when we completely abandon clinging that we feel any relief from our queasiness.
These three things: pain, impermanence and egolessness are known as the three marks of existence.
The Five Skandhas in Buddhism
The Buddhist doctrine of egolessness seems to be a bit confusing to westerners. I think this is because there is some confusion as to what is meant by ego. Ego, in the Buddhist sense, is quite different from the Freudian ego. The Buddhist ego is a collection of mental events classified into five categories, called skandhas, loosely translated as bundles, or heaps.
If we were to borrow a western expression, we could say that "in the beginning" things were going along quite well. At some point, however, there was a loss of confidence in the way things were going. There was a kind of primordial panic which produced confusion about what was happening. Rather than acknowledging this loss of confidence, there was an identification with the panic and confusion. Ego began to form. This is known as the first skandha, the skandha of form.
After the identification with confusion, ego begins to explore how it feels about the formation of this experience. If we like the experience, we try to draw it in. If we dislike it, we try to push it away, or destroy it. If we feel neutral about it, we just ignore it. The way we feel about the experience is called the skandha of form; what we try to do about it is known as the skandha of impulse/perception.
The next stage is to try to identify, or label the experience. If we can put it into a category, we can manipulate it better. Then we would have a whole bag of tricks to use on it. This is the skandha of concept. The final step in the birth of ego, is called the skandha of consciousness. Ego begins to churn thoughts and emotions around and around. This makes ego feel solid and real. The churning around and around is called samsara -- literally, to whirl about. The way ego feels about its situation (skandha of feeling) determines which of the six realms of existence it creates for itself.
The Six Realms in Buddhism
If ego decides it likes the situation, it begins to churn up all sorts of ways to possess it. A craving to consume the situation arises and we long to satisfy that craving. Once we do, a ghost of that craving carries over and we look around for something else to consume. We get into the habitual pattern of becoming consumer oriented. Perhaps we order a piece of software for our computer. We play with it for awhile, until the novelty wears out, and then we look around for the next piece of software that has the magic glow of not being possessed yet. Soon we haven't even got the shrink wrap off the current package when we start looking for the next one. Owning the software and using it doesn't seem to be as important as wanting it, looking forward to its arrival. This is known as the hungry ghost realm where we have made an occupation out of craving. We can never find satisfaction, it is like drinking salt water to quench our thirst.
Another realm is the animal realm, or having the mind like that of an animal. Here we find security by making certain that everything is totally predictable. We only buy blue chip stock, never take a chance and never look at new possibilities. The thought of new possibilities frightens us and we look with scorn at anyone who suggests anything innovative. This realm is characterized by ignorance. We put on blinders and only look straight ahead, never to the right or left.
The hell realm is characterized by acute aggression. We build a wall of anger between ourselves and our experience. Everything irritates us, even the most innocuous, and innocent statement drives us mad with anger. The heat of our anger is reflected back on us and sends us into a frenzy to escape from our torture, which in turn causes us to fight even harder and get even angrier. The whole thing builds on itself until we don't even know if we're fighting with someone else or ourselves. We are so busy fighting that we can't find an alternative to fighting; the possibility of alternative never even occurs to us.
These are the three lower realms. One of the three higher realms is called the jealous god realm. This pattern of existence is characterized by acute paranoia. We are always concerned with "making it". Everything is seen from a competitive point of view. We are always trying to score points, and trying to prevent others from scoring on us. If someone achieves something special we become determined to out do them. We never trust anyone; we "know" they're trying to slip one past us. If someone tries to help us, we try to figure out their angle. If someone doesn't try to help us, they are being uncooperative, and we make a note to ourselves that we will get even later. "Don't get mad, get even," that's our motto.
At some point we might hear about spirituality. We might hear about the possibility of meditation techniques, imported from some eastern religion, or mystical western one, that will make our minds peaceful and absorb us into a universal harmony. We begin to meditate and perform certain rituals and we find ourselves absorbed into infinite space and blissful states of existence. Everything sparkles with love and light; we become godlike beings. We become proud of our godlike powers of meditative absorption. We might even dwell in the realm of infinite space where thoughts seldom arise to bother us. We ignore everything that doesn't confirm our godhood. We have manufactured the god realm, the highest of the six realms of existence. The problem is, that we have manufactured it. We begin to relax and no longer feel the need to maintain our exalted state. Eventually a small sliver of doubt occurs. Have we really made it? At first we are able to smooth over the question, but eventually the doubt begins to occur more and more frequently and soon we begin to struggle to regain our supreme confidence. As soon as we begin to struggle, we fall back into the lower realms and begin the whole process over and over; from god realm to jealous god realm to animal realm to hungry ghost realm to hell realm. At some point we begin to wonder if there isn't some sort of alternative to our habitual way of dealing with the world. This is the human realm.
The human realm is the only one in which liberation from the six states of existence is possible. The human realm is characterized by doubt and inquisitiveness and the longing for something better. We are not as absorbed by the all consuming preoccupations of the other states of being. We begin to wonder whether it is possible to relate to the world as simple, dignified human beings.
The Goal of Buddhism
Most people have heard of nirvana. It has become equated with a sort of eastern version of heaven. Actually, nirvana simply means cessation. It is the cessation of passion, aggression and ignorance; the cessation of the struggle to prove our existence to the world, to survive. We don't have to struggle to survive after all. We have already survived. We survive now; the struggle was just an extra complication that we added to our lives because we had lost our confidence in the way things are. We no longer need to manipulate things as they are into things as we would like them to be.